Tower of Madness is a H.P. Lovecraft-inspired dice game, with a 15” three-dimensional clock tower filled with marbles, as a means of adding dramatic tension to every round. You can’t miss its undeniable table presence, nor the 30 plastic tentacles bursting from each side of the structure. This is the tale of how it came to be, from the creator, Curt Covert.
Game designers often get asked, “How do you come up with these things?” as it relates to the board games we create. A lot of times, the answer isn’t straight forward. But in this case, the Tower of Madness was directly inspired by the brilliant RPG, Dread. In that game, the designers utilized a wooden Jenga game as a skill-check mechanic – and as the game progressed and the stack became more precarious as more wooden tiles were removed, the stakes and the tension grew higher. I absolutely loved their use of a familiar family game – and how they used it in a whole new way to add spiraling tension to Dread. I wondered what other similar game mechanics existed that could deliver the same emotional punch. And that’s where it all started.
There have been many games, world-wide, that have suspended marbles or other tokens upon a network of sticks, and in my childhood, that game was Ker-plunk™. But my objective was never to try to cleverly remake that game, but use the uncertainty inherent in that mechanic to add drama to a new game. I decided early on that the core of the game would be dice-based and I wanted the core dice-rolling mechanic to be very straight forward. I specifically wanted the game to be very approachable and very easy to explain. Locking a single die each turn would force players down an ever decreasing percentage of success, so like the tower itself, the drama increases as you proceed. The cheers that erupt when a player needs a single die to land on a certain face continues to prove that out.
But I also knew it needed to be more varied and interesting to live up to the theme. The Location cards and the unique rolling challenges presented on each was developed alongside the core dice mechanic. Once a player groks that, it becomes easy to layer upon it with all sorts of new ways to roll the dice, to reward successes or punish failures. Coming up with those rolling challenges was among the most enjoyable of the design tasks. We tested a slew of them, threw out ones that were too punishing or not interesting enough. The set in the game was honed to the very best of them. And I love the groans of “how are we gonna get through this one” as they are revealed and read aloud by players. My particular favorites are those that tempt players to push their luck, to the potential ruin of all.
Early in development, the tower held dice, not marbles. One version used polyhedrals. Dice would have allowed multiple outcomes or varying strengths of effects, based on the faces rolled when the dice fell out of the tower. In the end it was one too many bits of randomness. It was fiddley and didn’t build the tension higher. Instead, people were so focused on the die values for effects that it detracted from enjoying the emotional impact of instantly knowing what had befallen them. So it was back to marbles, using just 4 different colors to differentiate the effects. It was more than enough. Still, months were spent chasing down that particular design aspect.
But through this exploration, the idea of the Spell deck emerged, as well as the push/pull concept of the marbles in the tower. I definitely wanted a tool for players to mitigate dice rolls and cause havoc for other players. Those became spells, the result of discovering and mastering knowledge that no one should have. As I thought about what impacts the marbles conferred, I realized I wanted a good number of the marbles to have positive effects. Thematically, I loved the idea that the Investigators were selfishly looking for secrets and forbidden knowledge to enlarge their power and that this quest might cost them their sanity – or worse. So I gave players a taste of that power with two Spell cards at the beginning of the game, but then only allowed additional card draws if a white marble drops out of the tower. I sweetened the pot by having blue marbles be worth victory points. It created another point of tension in the game. Players wanted half the marbles in the tower to gain the edge, but it comes at the potential cost of losing your mind – or causing the end of days as Cthulhu rises. Blacking out the tower, so you cannot see what marbles may fall dials up the excitement of the draw. It uses the concept of that familiar family game, but spins it on its head.
As I had done in Nevermore, I wanted the consequence of ultimate failure, without the bane of player elimination. Player Transformation, which wholescale changes the player experience and goals, was a slam dunk here. Going Insane is part of the mythos, so when a player accumulates too many Madness marbles they no longer care about victory points or rolling dice. They just want to summon Cthulhu. It is a stiff punishment if you have amassed a lot of points and provides a path for others to move ahead of the pack suddenly, but it also creates a fun new way to play for the Insane player. Now, they try to hasten the end of the game by playing Insanely powerful spells and pulling one or more tentacles from the tower on their turn, instead of rolling dice. If the third green Doom marble falls, Cthulhu rises and it is game over for the Investigators. Often all players lose as a result (though the Insane get eaten last), but I wanted a way for an Insane player to win – and it couldn’t be by regaining your sanity. If an Insane player could manage to cause the last green marble to fall… well, they just personally summoned Cthulhu and that has to be the ultimate win for a cultist. Not surprisingly, many people look forward to going Insane for this reason. Player Transformation remains one of the most powerful mechanics in my designer toolbox.
The biggest challenge was always production. Initial quotes would have driven a $100 price tag, which is way too high for a casual game. I spent a good chunk of two years on trying to drive down the price, changing materials, experimenting with different ways to construct the elements – and it very nearly didn’t get produced. There were simply too many costly elements. I started getting brutal, even flattening the sculpt of the tentacles to cut down on plastics, and it finally took shape. The final product retains all of the table presence I had wanted, but at almost half of the cost of the original version.
And then a month before it went to press, I gave it one last look. Had I missed opportunities? Could it be better? I decided it needed one more thing to give players a bit more agency. At the same time, I realized that some of the character card abilities were more active than others and therefore caused some players to question balance. So I stripped those abilities from the characters and placed them instead onto Unnatural Influence tokens. Now the abilities that some players felt were overpowered would be available to all. To earn one, you just needed to roll double 5’s. Added player agency came in as players situationally decided which power was best at that moment. Which would end up making the difference THIS turn? It was a small change but one that solved two issues.
The end result is exactly what I had hoped, an approachable, simple to learn game that delivers fun, tension-filled moments - immersing people in the Cthulhu mythos in a whole new way.
Curt Covert is the owner of Smirk & Dagger Games. A fifteen-year veteran in the industry and the inventor of Cutthroat Caverns, Hex Hex, and Nevermore, just to name a few. In 2018, his new line, Smirk & Laughter, will reach a broader audience than ever with games intended to connect with players on an emotional level.